It’s a Setup

Dec 3, 2009

Every aspect of restyling requires specific skills, equipment, tools and workspace. Paint protection film (PPF) is no exception. I spoke with some experts in the field of paint protection to gather their thoughts, experiences, tips and tricks for creating a PPF workspace that contributes to your success and your profits.

Spick-and-span

Cleanliness is the most important factor in paint protection film installations. When working with a clear material any debris is visible if trapped between the film and the install surface. Todd Bergman, PPF installer for Interwest Distribution, Denver, puts it concisely: “An enclosed bay or garage with temperature control and clean air circulation are ideal.” Having a dedicated PPF workspace goes hand in hand with cleanliness. “Detail bays and body shops are extremely hard to work in,” he continues, “because of floating debris in the air that can cause contamination in the film.”

At Venture Tape Corp., Rockland, Mass., Dan McPhail, product manager, says, having a dedicated clean room only is a must. “There are too many foreign objects or debris that can wreak havoc with paint protection films.”

Greg Duchinsky, marketing director and PPF product trainer for Sharpline Converting, Wichita, Kan., concurs on dedicated workspaces: “Body shop service bays may require more effort in setting up an adequately clean work environment. In most multi-bay work areas, you may need to run curtains to divide the PPF work area from other areas of the shop.”

No breezeways. “A non-windy environment is also of major importance. No outside wind source or ceiling fan wind is critical”, says Steve Novarro, owner of Love Your Car and Topline USA, Traverse City, Minn. “I stress in training that your install bay should really be away from any other services that your shop performs. Any debris under the film that has to be remedied increases the install time or requires replacing the kit, both cutting into your profits.”

Jeff Boettcher, 3M Automotive market development manager, Minneapolis, notes the nuances of why a dedicated, clean workspace is so important. “You want your application area to be clean because of the potential for static when you are removing the film from the liner. Any kind of debris present in the air could then be drawn to the charged film.”

McPhail further suggest a 30′-x-50′ clean room environment.

Along with a clean workspace, vehicle cleanliness is synonymous with installation success. Due to the transparent nature of PPF, your install is only as good as the surface you install on. No attention to detail can be spared in the preparation of the vehicle for PPF installation. Tim Hartt, Xpel Technologies, San Antonio, Texas, notes that “most contamination comes from inadequate cleaning of the vehicle, particularly gaps between body panels, headlamps or moldings.”

Bergman at Interwest reveals his standard prep procedure: “It is advisable to wash the complete vehicle with a pressure washer to flush dirt out of body panel joints, around lights, grilles, emblems and other-hard-to-clean areas. With most vehicles, I use a clay bar first to remove any tar, tree sap or imperfections in the paint. I then use a general-purpose adhesive remover to make sure oils and waxes are removed. Finally I use isopropyl alcohol on a micro-fiber cloth to make sure any adhesive remover residue is removed.” Sharpline’s Duchinsky agrees, “Other cleaning solutions can be used, but always finish with an isopropyl alcohol rubdown prior to application.”

Topline’s Novarro adds, “We like to wet our floor down. That helps keep dust and other particles from possibly landing on the PPF. You don’t need to soak the floor; just a quick little mist does the job.” And his further thoughts on cleanliness are important, too: “Pay attention to the clothing and your personal cleanliness, as well,” he reminds. “It only takes an eyelash or a flake of cigarette ash to ruin a PPF job.”

Further, McPhail says that installers are welcome to have “a blueprint drawn for their work stations, allowing [them] to offer “certified installations” to the consumer.”

Temperature control

Like other accessory films, PPF is susceptible to temperature extremes. 3M’s Boettcher explains: “We recommend 55-90 degrees [Fahrenheit] vehicle surface temperature, always allowing the vehicle to warm up or cool down to this temperature range.” He also reports that “some of our installers modify the solutions that they use to correspond with the temperatures they are working in.”

Novarro’s restyling shop is located in a particularly cold climate and he begins with “each vehicle in a wash bay with a big overhead heater where we literally thaw the vehicle out, then clean it. You have to get the temperature up and regulate that temperature. It’s a fine line that you have to maintain.”

Light up the room

The transparency of PPF also presents challenges with lighting. Personal preference plays a role in lighting an install bay, but there are standards to be followed. Sharpline’s Duchinsky introduces the topic: “Good lighting is critical to quality PPF installations. Installers must be able to easily spot debris and bubbles during PPF applications so they can be removed before the PPF adhesive sets up. We utilize a series of color-correct fluorescent light fixtures hung about 10′ from the floor. Provide enough light fixtures to allow for detailed inspection of the vehicle. Floor lamps are often used to provide additional lighting.”

Although the use of floor lamps and wall-mounted lighting elicit different thoughts from the experts, Hartt agrees with Duchinsky: “Besides overhead lighting, there should also be vertically oriented fixtures on the walls around the bay, or on movable stands. These lights should stand from the ground up and be at least 4′ high.” He continues with, “Another important part of the light fixtures is a grille or diffuser that projects a visible line onto the installation surface, making it easier to spot bubbles and debris. Similar technology is used in the paintless dent removal industry.”

Novarro’s thoughts include the type of light bulbs and how you paint your workspace. “It is worth spending the additional money on the near daylight style bulbs,” he says. “As much white light as possible and the whiter the better. Our install bay is painted entirely in bright white, which helps tremendously, as well.”

Tool time

Everyone agrees on the basic tools for PPF installation. Xpel’s Hartt notes that he keeps the tool assortment “fairly minimal. I am all for having the right tools for the job,” he says. “But overcomplicating the process can be distracting and cause mistakes. An installer needs only a squeegee, spray bottles, clean micro-fiber cloths andan Olfa knife.”

Novarro shares in this “less is more” philosophy: “The beautiful thing about PPF is the low-cost entry point for restylers.”

And Bergman offers some tool tips: “Installers use a combination of the yellow turbo, orange crush, clear max, black wet or dry, and a blue hard card when cut in half at a 45″ angle for door cups. Microfiber towels are great for cleaning and to wrap your squeegee in. A syringe can be used to remove trapped moisture or air bubbles.”

Inherently, PPF installations have you working on the ground to get at bumpers, ground effects, rocker panels and other low, vulnerable places. While a car hoist or lift is a desirable item, it’s a luxury most shops dream of. Todd Bergman feels strongly about ramps, though. “A set of nice, non-slip ramps such as “Race Ramps” are a must in my eyes.” Novarro expands a bit, saying, “Sometimes, we use ramps to get the front end of cars up off the ground a bit. PPF installation requires the installer to be sitting and even lying on the ground. We use yoga mats for comfort and mobility – they are lightweight, padded and take up almost no storage room in the bay when not in use.”

Hand vs. computer cutting

Getting started in PPF installations will have you deciding between using raw, PPF material and hand cutting your projects, purchasing pre-cut kits or purchasing your own plotter and template software. It boils down to the amount of PPF work you are doing. Duchinsky says that “vehicle template software is highly recommended for anyone who wants to maximize their PPF profits. These programs have hundreds of templates covering most coverage areas for most vehicle body styles, including exotics. They simplify installations and save material.”

“Having the right plotter is a good investment for anyone serious about getting into the PPF market,” Duchinsky continues. “The minimum plotter width should be at least 30″ to fit many vehicle PPF templates.”

Adds Hartt: “Having a kit pre-cut saves time and material, and potentially prevents damage to the painted surfaces the installer is trying to protect. There is always risk when using a knife to cut paint protection film on the car unless thevehicle is being disassembled and all the edges wrapped. The other advantage of pre-cut kits is having machine-cut consistency on all your installations.”

Venture’s McPhail agrees with having a cutter as a PPF device. “A plotter is a great tool to use with our software template package,” he says. There is less chance of cutting or trimming on a vehicle if the patterns fit -” use it to your advantage.

“Cutting on a car is not for everyone. Some of the key artisans of the trade have been used to cutting, while for others trimming can be a challenge. We don’t want anyone to score the paint.”

Novarro notes that he doesn’t “find vehicle template software necessary, although it is preferred.”

“A lot of entry-level PPF installers can be successful without a plotter and cutting software, and thousands of dollars of rolls of film,” he continues. “Once you’ve got steady customers and your shop is doing 20-30 kits a month, then it’s time to step up to the production equipment. For the guys who are doing two or three kits a month, it’s a huge waste of money to invest in all the equipment; they’d be better off using that money to grow their business. I do recommend that everyone use pre-cut kits. An advantage of buying pre-cut kits is that you can go to your distributor with questions if something comes up.”

Boettcher notes 3M’s research has shown that “the feedback that we’ve gotten from the dealerships that we work with is that they prefer installers use a pre-cut kit rather than someone hand cutting on the vehicle. That being said, there are still a large number of hand cutters out there who do a wonderful job.”